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Folks Like Us

July 13, 2009

My inner curmudgeon loves the quotes I get periodically from Jon Winokur.  A recent installment courtesy of Groucho Marx got me thinking about who we choose to hang out with: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”  (Is it any coincidence this struck my fancy the same week my city was overrun with Elks — not the cervus elaphus found in woodlands and grasslands across the west, but rather the benevolent, fraternal, and orderly variety that inhabit lodges in small towns and suburbs.)

Our social, collective, and cooperative urges, unlike those of Mr. Marx, often attract us not to our opposites but to folks just like us.  Hanging out with people we have something in common with satisfies impulses on many different levels.  For starters, it assures us that our unique qualities do not render us vulnerable to attack or humiliation.  People who understand us are also more apt to come to our aid if we need help because they appreciate our interests and moods better than those who are different from us.  It might also be true that their actions are more often motivated by empathy than an expectation of reciprocity.  Finally, when things need to be done that exceed our individual capacity, friends with similar interests and dispositions toward the world can make it a bit easier not just to enlist support, but also to get organized and start achieving things because we are in a better position to anticipate what each other will do.

Hanging out with folks like us has very clear advantages.  But what happens when we choose to associate with people who share our shortcomings?

For starters, hanging with a group of like-minded and similarly limited individuals can make it harder for us to discern danger because our colleagues tend to reinforce our biases, especially our blindspots.  When danger becomes apparent, they may still hang with us but their numbers and weight may make it difficult to maneuver well in tight spots or rapidly changing situations.  When we need new information, especially a different way of looking at things that will help us appreciate alternative courses of action, our like-minded mates may reduce number or restrict the range of the alternatives we perceive.

In an increasingly specialized, interconnected, technologically savvy, and fast-paced world, treating this situation as a false dichotomy that requires us to choose between our doppelgangers and devil’s advocates is unnecessarily short-sighted and indeed pretty foolish.  Effective leaders approach every potential relationship as an opportunity to expand their network of associates in ways that both compensate for their weaknesses and reinforce their strengths.  Placing a premium not just on getting to know people who will support us, but also finding friends who know how to help us resist our worst impulses helps keep us from running off the rails.

Social media are making it easier to expand and employ our networks and associations than ever before, but they tend to favor connections among people with common interests or previous contact.  Learning to use these tools in ways that avoid the tendency to associate only with folks like us or to engage in interactions that are so tenuous or superficial they tend toward the meaningless requires real effort and not a little imagination.

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